What Germany Can Teach America About Addressing White Supremacism

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Neo-Nazi demonstrators on August 19, 2017, in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Omer Messinger/Getty Images

On Saturday, in Berlin’s outlying borough of Spandau, around 500 neo-Nazis marched to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, who hanged himself (or, as his fans claim, was murdered) in his prison cell, in 1987, at the age of 93. Hess is revered among neo-Nazis for never recanting or apologizing for his ideology, and Saturday’s marchers rallied around a banner emblazoned with the words he famously spoke before being sentenced to life imprisonment at the Nuremberg Trials: “I regret nothing.”

The neo-Nazi demonstrators in Berlin were well matched by counterprotesters, though not outnumbered by such dramatic margins as at Saturday’s “free speech” rally in Boston. Most Berliners apparently did not see a few hundred fascist punks as worthy of giving up their Saturday afternoon to make a fuss over. Residents along the marchers’ route blasted loud music from their balconies to drown them out, according to CNN, including Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” The counterprotest was well attended by anti-fascist activists who held up banners making fun of the neo-Nazis and prevented them from reaching their destination: the former site of Spandau Prison, which the German government demolished after Hess’s death to prevent it from becoming a shrine to Nazism.

Residents of Spandau had tried in vain to get the march banned, but the government ultimately decided it could not do so without violating Germany’s free-assembly laws, as long as the marchers adhered to the country’s very strict criteria governing their banners, flags, clothing, and chants. As Andreas Geisel, Berlin’s state interior secretary, put it: “We have very carefully reviewed this and determined that the liberal and democratic fundamental order unfortunately also holds for assholes.” Rather than stop them from marching, the Spandauers simply made it clear that they were not welcome or appreciated there. (The small town of Wunsiedel, home of Hess’s original gravesite, took a different tack in 2014, tricking neo-Nazis into raising money for anti-Nazi programs.)

Nonetheless, the speech freedoms of the demonstrators were limited in certain specific ways: They could not wear military clothing, carry weapons, play drums or military music, chant slogans, show their tattoos, or display images of Hess. It is illegal to display the Nazi flag or swastika in Germany at all, so they, like other fascist demonstrators, carried the red-white-and-black pre-Nazi imperial flag instead — and were limited to one flag per 50 people. Nor were they allowed to perform the Nazi salute, which is also verboten: A drunk American was beaten up by a stranger outside a Dresden café last week for making the gesture, while two Chinese tourists were arrested and fined for doing so outside the Reichstag in Berlin earlier this month.

It is hard to imagine the white supremacists who terrorized Charlottesville last week being nearly as effective as they were, had they been held to similar standards — or even just prevented from carrying guns. Of course, rules such as Germany’s would never fly in the U.S., where they would be considered violations of the First and Second Amendments — though many of us would question whether the Second Amendment really protects, say, the right of anti-Semites to menace a synagogue while armed with rifles. Nonetheless, as the U.S. finally turns to confront its own neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate problem children, Germany provides a few lessons we might heed in how to exorcise a toxic ideology from our society without compromising our historical memory.

After the end of World War II, Germany underwent a dramatic period of de-Nazification: Leaders of the movement who did not manage to flee the country were tried and jailed or executed and buried in unmarked graves; statues and monuments were destroyed, swastikas blasted off the façades of public buildings, Nazi literature destroyed and fascist newspapers shut down. This was a start, but not enough, and Nazi ideas and sympathies endured in the Germany population for years to come. The Nazi Party had touched every corner of German society, so most teachers and public servants who remained after the war were former members themselves; removing them all would have ground the country to a halt.

It took a good 20 years for Germany to begin reckoning with this most horrific chapter in its national history. Traveling in Bavaria as a young woman in the late ’60s, my mother recalled meeting German students who had to ask her what had happened in their country between 1933 and 1945, because they had not learned this in school. In the ’60s and ’70s, that all changed, as young people who had grown up after the war began asking questions about what their parents had gotten up to in those years.

Today, the history of the Nazi era and the Holocaust are covered extensively in German schools: This course of study is mandatory, most German high-school students take at least one school trip to a concentration camp, and the question of whether to cast the Nazis as villains in the curriculum is not a matter of public debate (Holocaust denial and revisionism are themselves illegal). As this Quora thread illustrates, German students learn that not only were the Nazis bad, they were bad for Germany, and their defeat in the war is not taught as “Germany lost.”

Contrast this to the U.S., where there is no universally accepted national standard for social studies and where education officials in each state can establish curricula to include pretty much whatever version of American history they like: Recall the scandal that emerged in 2015 when it came to light that as part of the Texas Board of Education’s efforts to “put a conservative stamp on history,” the state had ordered up history and geography textbooks that described the Atlantic slave trade as bringing “workers” to the plantations and downplayed the inhuman horrors of slavery. Texas being the second-largest textbook market in the country after California, curricular standards set there tend to have an impact on what students in other states learn as well.

While our own process of de-Confederatization is coming a century and a half too late, it is encouraging to see American cities removing monuments to men who tore their country apart and wasted hundreds of thousands of lives to preserve their privilege of owning other human beings as property. It is an important symbolic gesture, but as Germany learned in the decades after the Second World War, it is hardly sufficient. What really made the difference in building a post-Nazi, anti-Nazi culture, was when Germany decided to make an honest reckoning with that history an integral component of what students learned in school.

Likewise, the U.S. will only make enduring progress at eradicating the doctrine of white supremacy when kids in Georgia learn in their history classes that Robert E. Lee selfishly sent their forebears to their bloody deaths and helped set the southern states back a century in their social and economic development — and for that matter, when kids in New York learn that slavery and segregation were not peculiarities of the South, but rather dark threads in our national fabric that continue to resonate in all of our lives today.

Can Germany Teach the U.S. How to Address White Supremacism?